American Innovations by Rivka Galchen

18490553Fiction — print. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 175 pgs. Library copy.

Galchen’s collection includes ten short stories and nearly all of them are written in first-person making it difficult to determine how distinct these stories are supposed to be from one another. Even so, I found myself warming to nearly every rendition of ‘I’ and greatly enjoying the magical realism injected into many of the stories.

The book begins with “The Lost Order” in which the narrator is harassed by a man placing his order for carry-out because she cannot find the nerve to tell him that he has the wrong number. She also cannot find the nerve to tell her husband the truth about why she tendered her resignation, why she suddenly has time to wander around the city during the day. The melancholy infused into this tale could easily overpower the reader and yet there is something tender about the tale, about the ‘I’ that manages to take the story in a wondrous direction. It was a wonderful introduction to the collection because I immediately wanted more.

“Sticker Shock”, the third story in the collection, is one of only two stories in the collection that uses the third person; instead of an ‘I’, the reader is given “the daughter” and “the mother”. The story begins in a jumble of numbers — income, insurance, housing costs — and lingo related to taxes, which I had to read more than once to keep straight, but swiftly becomes an intriguing look into the psyche of a family, particularly how money begins to motivate their affairs with one another.

Although I found the later half of the collection to be weaker than the first half, the final story “Once an Empire” stood out to me for its ability to convey anxiety in a psychological thriller lasting less than eight pages. A young woman witnesses her furniture leaving her apartment all on its own like a romantic partner who has decided to leave her. She tries to rationalize the actions of her formerly inanimate objects, tries to figure out what she could have done to make them unhappy, but the sudden loss of all her possessions upends her entire life and her understanding of herself.

Overall, a beautiful, well-written collection of short stories. Her stories could have easily landed themselves amongst other novels cast aside due to pretentious writing yet Galchen manages to create ambitious stories whilst walking that fine line. Her writing left me wanting more with every turn of the page for roughly seventy percent of the stories in this collection, and I hope to pick up a copy of her full length novel sooner rather than later.

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